New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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(C) Real Definitions
Problems raised by real definitions (definitions, it will be recalled, which attempt to reveal the Essence or true nature of the referent) may be first illustrated by the linguistic attitude of R. G. Collingwood. The first sentence of The Principles of Art states: "The business of this book is to answer the question: What is art?" Now as Rupert Brooke remarked: " 'One of the perils attending on those who ask, "What is art?" is that they tend to find what they are looking for: a common quality in Art. . . . People who start in this way are apt to be a most intolerable nuisance both to critics and to artists/"53 Collingwood's beginning, therefore, might well persuade anyone who is aware that this artificial question has no single true or correct answer to turn elsewhere for his reading unless semantic curiosity has been aroused. If it has been, the succeeding sentences will stimulate it further: "A question of this kind has to be answered in two stages. First, we must make sure that the key word (in this case 'art') is a word which we know how to apply where it ought to be applied and refuse where it ought to be refused" (my italics). And on the following page, the further stage of the answer is given: "Secondly, we must proceed to a definition of the term 'art.' This comes second, and not first, because no one can even try to define a term until he has settled in his own mind a definite usage of it." This whole procedure, seemingly so plausible and stated so clearly, succinctly, and dogmatically, is fallacious.54 It admirably illustrates the misguided position of
53.  Quoted by Michael Roberts, Critique of Poetry (London, 1934), p. 64.
54.  In one sense, of course, definitions do come second rather than first. It would obviously be absurd, that is to say, hastily and arbitrarily to concoct definitions without first examining the referents or qualities of experience which the words are intended to designate. Burke was therefore justified in saying: "But let the virtue of a definition be what it will, in the order of things, it seems rather to follow than to precede our inquiry, of which it ought to be considered as the result" ("A Philosophical Inquiry into the